By Rich "Beaker" Wyckoff
I've been designing games professionally for three years and thinking about designing them for most of my life (when not playing them). I tend to present strong opinions, but I want to make it clear that these are only opinions, and I don't want to come off like some of the famous names in the industry who seem to think that selling a lot of copies of a game and getting attention from the press makes them an expert on everything about making games. My tenet is that if you claim to know everything, you're missing out on the fact that there's always something new to learn, some other opinion which is worth considering, some experience you are still lacking...
aving most recently worked on Trespasser, I'm very aware of one of the most frequently used criticisms of the game: that the "realistic" arm wasn't fun. Trespasser reviews, my recent play-throughs of Zelda 64 and Half-Life, and my current experiences with Thief and Baldur's Gate have led me to do a lot of thinking about the place of realism in computer games, and that's about all the excuse I ever need for a column.
I would say that if there was a fundamental design principal on Trespasser, it was that if something couldn't be made to look and act like the real world, it wouldn't go in the game. This thinking was used as the basis of every technological decision that was made: there is no fire in the game, for instance, because the team felt that it couldn't be rendered realistically nor was it really possible to make everything burnable that would be burnable in the real world. At the same time that the technology was trying to be made as realistic as possible, though, we designers were also struggling to make a game that was actually fun to play. The entire development process of Trespasser perhaps the industry's most intense effort ever to balance the real with the fun.
I have encountered a high degree of fear of realism among my peers in the industry, and Trespasser's arguable failure to be fun is now often used to justify that fear. But I feel that the real problem is a misunderstanding of what realism in computer games is all about. Some amount of realism is inescapable in almost any computer game design, and I think that acknowledging this is the only way to continue to make games more fun and more accessible.
It may seem sweeping to state the realism is inescapable, but it shouldn't be hard to see why: name five or even ten of your favorite games, and then ask yourself if any of them have completely abstract gameplay. The games I mentioned at the beginning of this article are anything but abstract: all of them feature approximately human characters that move about worlds that function in many ways like the real world. The entire development of 3D technology was an effort to increase the realism of computer games. Even the kinds of games which I would qualify as abstract, like Tetris and other puzzle games of that sort, often relate to basic concepts that we learn from the real world, like gravity. Would Tetris have been as much of a success if the pieces fell up the screen?
To some extent, then, every decision a game designer makes concerns how realistic a part of their game should be. This is where the balancing act begins. Let's look at the Trespasser arm some more: is it annoying because it is too real, or could it be that it is not real enough? The more-discerning critiques have pointed out that in the real world, we use our arms by giving them much higher-level commands than is possible in Trespasser. The act of picking an object up in the real world involves little more than getting within arm's reach of it and then using your almost-instinctual behavior to reach out and grasp it - you may even lean or stretch or even crouch all more-or-less automatically. When you do pick that object up, you will be holding it in the manner most you have learned throughout your life is most appropriate for that object, or if it is large and unwieldy you will hold it in the most comfortable and sustainable position possible. You will rarely "think" about picking anything up at all, and if you do start thinking very much, the whole act becomes harder.
Instead of being automatic, grabbing things in Trespasser is more often than not an exercise in frustration, involving repeated attempts to get into position and repeated drops as even small objects get caught on everything around them. Your arm distance seems shorter than normal because, although the arm can actually reach unrealistically far, there is none of the unconscious body movement that extends our real pickup distance even further. Worse yet, the underlying technology of the arm is fundamentally unrealistic in two important ways: the joints can rotate in ways physically impossible for a human, and the upper arm has no physical presence in the world. There is no way to feel a correspondence between your real arm which is holding the mouse and your arm in the virtual world, because the arm in the virtual world twists like a rubber band and passes through things you expect it to rest on or bump against. In short, the Trespasser arm violates your expectations.
Expectations are the key to both realism and fun. The idea for the Trespasser arm was that you would be able to pick up any object easily with a single command, because this is how easy you expect it to be from your real world experiences. Industry veterans will be familiar with the many problems which can crop up during a project's development and can invent their own explanation as to why the arm we shipped didn't meet player's expectations: it will be close enough to the truth. All that is important here is that the arm is not fun because it so wildly varies from a person's expectations for using their real arm.
Fun is not a very definable term, and may never be, and this is why I use the word "feel" often when talking about game design. While it involves a lot of organizational skill and technical knowledge to actually make a game, it still comes down to a lot of gut feelings. Good game designers are already be quite used to going by their feelings, but at the same time we are a somewhat peculiar and isolated lot, and a lot of times what feels good to us may not actually feel good to most people, or even to anyone else. When game design starts to deal with issues of realism, it becomes very important for a designer to be able to generalize their feelings, to see the difference between their own personal, learned expectations and those that shared and common to all people.
|Credits: Beaker's Bent logo illustrated by and is © 1999 Dan Zalkus. Beaker's Bent is © 1999 Rich Wyckoff. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is strictly prohibited, so don't do it. We have ways of making you talk.|